clock menu more-arrow no yes

San Diego area police shoot and kill Alfred Olango, who was reportedly unarmed and mentally ill

A woman claiming to be his sister says she called police for help. When police arrived, they killed him.

When Alfred Olango began acting erratically at a suburban San Diego strip mall on Tuesday, a woman claiming to be his sister — who said he was mentally ill — said she called the police for help. But when El Cajon police officers arrived, one shot and killed Olango.

"I called for help," she told officers, shrieking. "I didn’t call you guys to kill him."

Warning: Graphic footage of a police shooting:

Police said that Olango, a 38-year-old black man, ignored orders to take his hands out of his pockets. He then pulled an object from his pocket, aiming it at officers while taking what El Cajon Police Chief Jeff Davis described as a "shooting stance": "At one point, the male rapidly drew an object from his front pants pocket, placed both hands together on it, and extended it rapidly towards the officer, taking what appeared to be a shooting stance, putting the object in the officer’s face."

A second officer on the scene tried to use a Taser on Olango, but it was unclear if the stungun actually hit him. At the same time, the other officer — Richard Gonsalves, who had the object pointed at him — fired his gun. Olango was then taken to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Olango, however, was unarmed. The object he allegedly pointed at police officers turned out to be a vape pen, police said. No weapon was recovered from the scene.

The vape pen recovered from the scene of the police shooting of Alfred Olango at the angle a police officer saw it from before he opened fire. El Cajon Police Department

The vape pen recovered from the scene of the police shooting of Alfred Olango, at the angle a police officer saw it from before he opened fire.

Dispatchers had told police that Olango did not reportedly have a weapon and was possibly experiencing a mental health crisis, Davis confirmed at a press conference on Friday. The Psychiatric Emergency Response Team was in the middle of another call when the report about Olango came in, and it couldn't arrive to the scene before Olango was shot and killed.

Family friends confirmed Olango’s identity, David Hernandez reported for the San Diego Union-Tribune. They said he was mentally ill and was suffering from a mental breakdown. Prior to the shooting, Olango was allegedly walking through traffic — which police said not only put him in danger, but drivers as well.

Police obtained cellphone and surveillance videos of the shooting, which were released a few days after the shooting. The videos show that Olango did appear to point an object at police.

Alfred Olango appears to aim an object at a police officer moments before he's shot and killed. El Cajon Police Department

Alfred Olango appears to aim an object — which turned out to be a vape pen — at a police officer moments before he's shot and killed.

The shooting has quickly fallen under the umbrella of the Black Lives Matter movement, which protests racial disparities in police use of force and the criminal justice system. To them, Olango’s death is yet another example of police using unnecessary force against an unarmed black man — one who appeared to need help.

Black people are much more likely to be killed by police than their white peers

Police killings by race. Alvin Chang/Vox

An analysis of the available FBI data by Vox’s Dara Lind shows that US police kill black people at disproportionate rates: They accounted for 31 percent of police killing victims in 2012, even though they made up just 13 percent of the US population. Although the data is incomplete, since it’s based on voluntary reports from police agencies around the country, it highlights the vast disparities in how police use force.

Black teens were 21 times as likely as white teens to be shot and killed by police between 2010 and 2012, according to a ProPublica analysis of the FBI data. ProPublica’s Ryan Gabrielson, Ryann Grochowski Jones, and Eric Sagara reported: "One way of appreciating that stark disparity, ProPublica’s analysis shows, is to calculate how many more whites over those three years would have had to have been killed for them to have been at equal risk. The number is jarring — 185, more than one per week."

There have been several high-profile police killings since 2014 involving black suspects. In Baltimore, six police officers were indicted for the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody. In North Charleston, South Carolina, Michael Slager was charged with murder and fired from the police department after shooting Walter Scott, who was fleeing and unarmed at the time. In Ferguson, Darren Wilson killed unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown. In New York City, NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo killed Eric Garner by putting the unarmed 43-year-old black man in a chokehold.

One possible explanation for the racial disparities: Police tend to patrol high-crime neighborhoods, which are disproportionately black. That means they're going to be generally more likely to initiate a policing action, from traffic stops to more serious arrests, against a black person who lives in these areas. And all of these policing actions carry a chance, however small, to escalate into a violent confrontation.

That's not to say that higher crime rates in black communities explain the entire racial disparity in police shootings. A 2015 study by researcher Cody Ross found, "There is no relationship between county-level racial bias in police shootings and crime rates (even race-specific crime rates), meaning that the racial bias observed in police shootings in this data set is not explainable as a response to local-level crime rates." That suggests something else — such as, potentially, racial bias — is going on.

One reason to believe racial bias is a factor: Studies show that officers are quicker to shoot black suspects in video game simulations. Josh Correll, a University of Colorado Boulder psychology professor who conducted the research, said it’s possible the bias could lead to even more skewed outcomes in the field. "In the very situation in which [officers] most need their training," he said, "we have some reason to believe that their training will be most likely to fail them."

Part of the solution to potential bias is better training that helps cops acknowledge and deal with their potential subconscious prejudices. But critics also argue that more accountability could help deter future brutality or excessive use of force, since it would make it clear that there are consequences to the misuse and abuse of police powers. Yet right now, lax legal standards make it difficult to legally punish individual police officers for use of force, even when it might be excessive.

People with mental illnesses are also more likely to be victims of police shootings

A visualization of a brain and a person’s reflection in a mirror. Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

In Olango’s case, the problem may have gone beyond racial disparities — if he really was having a mental health crisis, as family friends claim.

It’s a terrifying statistic: Someone with an untreated mental illness is 16 times more likely to be killed by police than other civilians approached or stopped by law enforcement, according to a 2015 report by the Treatment Advocacy Center.

If people were getting comprehensive care and support, police most likely would not need to get involved in many of the circumstances that end up in horrible tragedies. But very often in the US, that’s not happening.

Mental health care is woefully underfunded in America, and the criminal justice system is often the only institution that can pick up the slack. A 2014 national survey by the Treatment Advocacy Center concluded, "Not only are the numbers of mentally ill in prisons and jails continuing to climb, the severity of inmates’ illnesses is on the rise as well." The survey found that the number of people with serious mental illness in prisons and jails outnumber those in state hospitals 10 to one.

While no one seems to like this setup, the reality of its existence has driven some law enforcement officials to change their ways at the urging of mental health advocates. This is, to some extent, harm reduction: No, police should not be the ones responding to mental health crises. But given the reality of the situation, police should be trained to deal with these crises properly.

Police, for example, may not understand that people going through psychotic episodes genuinely aren't in control of their actions at the time.

But if police know someone isn't in control of their actions, it makes deescalation seem much more sensible. After all, why would you shoot someone — effectively punishing them — for something they can't help?

Through deescalation, officers try to level with people in the middle of a mental health crisis. In doing this, officers should keep their distance and calmly talk to the person they're approaching to try to get them to relax. The idea is to get the person to trust the officer, eventually convincing the person to submit without any violence.


"Deescalation is always the intention," Dixie Gamble, who’s trained officers for mental health crises, previously told me. "When the officer shows up, ask basic questions in a soft, lower voice." She added, "Instead of putting your hands on the gun, hold your hands down by your side, open your palms outward, and ask simple questions: ‘Dude, are you okay?’ or, ‘Ma'am, are you okay?’ Simple, right? ‘What is your name?’ ‘What would you like?’"

From that point, officers should proceed to subdue the person by calmly talking them down and eventually linking them to health care.

This can be safer not just for the person in a mental health crisis, but for the cop, too — since it makes a person in the middle of a crisis less likely to lash out.

But very often police are trained to essentially do the opposite of what they should.

"Police departments are trained to be authoritative — to step in, then take charge," Pete Earley, a journalist and author of Crazy: A Father's Search Through America's Mental Health Madness, previously told me. "You're dealing with someone who's psychotic, who’s already paranoid, who may be hearing voices that people are trying to hurt him. When someone encounters a police officer like that, it's a recipe for disaster."

This gets to the heart of the problem with how police respond to such encounters: It’s not that cops go into these situations with bad intentions, but rather that they’re essentially trained to handle these situations poorly. By changing that training, then, cops can go into crises with a better idea of what to do — and possibly avoid a deadly encounter.

Police only have to reasonably perceive a threat to justify shooting

A police officer at a shooting range. Jewel Samad/AFP via Getty Images

Legally, what most matters in police shootings is whether police officers reasonably believed that their lives were in immediate danger, not whether the shooting victim actually posed a threat. So in the Olango case, the question is whether the officers involved thought he reasonably posed an immediate threat to them or others.

In the 1980s, a pair of Supreme Court decisions — Tennessee v. Garner and Graham v. Connor — set up a framework for determining when deadly force by cops is reasonable.

Constitutionally, "police officers are allowed to shoot under two circumstances," David Klinger, a University of Missouri St. Louis professor who studies use of force, told Vox’s Lind. The first circumstance is "to protect their life or the life of another innocent party" — what departments call the "defense-of-life" standard. The second circumstance is to prevent a suspect from escaping, but only if the officer has probable cause to think the suspect poses a dangerous threat to others.

The logic behind the second circumstance, Klinger said, comes from a Supreme Court decision called Tennessee v. Garner. That case involved a pair of police officers who shot a 15-year-old boy as he fled from a burglary. (He’d stolen $10 and a purse from a house.) The court ruled that cops couldn’t shoot every felon who tried to escape. But, as Klinger said, "they basically say that the job of a cop is to protect people from violence, and if you’ve got a violent person who’s fleeing, you can shoot them to stop their flight."

The key to both of the legal standards — defense of life and fleeing a violent felony — is that it doesn’t matter whether there is an actual threat when force is used. Instead, what matters is the officer’s "objectively reasonable" belief that there is a threat.

That standard comes from the other Supreme Court case that guides use-of-force decisions: Graham v. Connor. This was a civil lawsuit brought by a man who’d survived his encounter with police officers, but who’d been treated roughly, had his face shoved into the hood of a car, and broken his foot — all while he was suffering a diabetic attack.

The court didn’t rule on whether the officers’ treatment of him had been justified, but it did say that the officers couldn’t justify their conduct just based on whether their intentions were good. They had to demonstrate that their actions were "objectively reasonable," given the circumstances and compared to what other police officers might do.

What’s "objectively reasonable" changes as the circumstances change. "One can’t just say, 'Because I could use deadly force 10 seconds ago, that means I can use deadly force again now," Walter Katz, a California attorney who specializes in oversight of law enforcement agencies, said.

In general, officers are given lot of legal latitude to use force without fear of punishment. The intention behind these legal standards is to give police officers leeway to make split-second decisions to protect themselves and bystanders. And although critics argue that these legal standards give law enforcement a license to kill innocent or unarmed people, police officers say they are essential to their safety.

For some critics, the question isn’t what’s legally justified but rather what’s preventable. "We have to get beyond what is legal and start focusing on what is preventable. Most are preventable," Ronald Davis, a former police chief who heads the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, told the Washington Post. Police "need to stop chasing down suspects, hopping fences, and landing on top of someone with a gun," he added. "When they do that, they have no choice but to shoot."

Police are rarely prosecuted for shootings

Police are very rarely prosecuted for shootings — and not just because the law allows them wide latitude to use force on the job. Sometimes the investigations fall onto the same police department the officer is from, which creates major conflicts of interest. Other times the only available evidence comes from eyewitnesses, who may not be as trustworthy in the public eye as a police officer.

"There is a tendency to believe an officer over a civilian, in terms of credibility," David Rudovsky, a civil rights lawyer who co-wrote Prosecuting Misconduct: Law and Litigation, told Amanda Taub for Vox. "And when an officer is on trial, reasonable doubt has a lot of bite. A prosecutor needs a very strong case before a jury will say that somebody who we generally trust to protect us has so seriously crossed the line as to be subject to a conviction."

If police are charged, they’re very rarely convicted. The National Police Misconduct Reporting Project analyzed 3,238 criminal cases against police officers from April 2009 through December 2010. They found that only 33 percent were convicted, and only 36 percent of officers who were convicted ended up serving prison sentences. Both of those are about half the rate at which members of the public are convicted or incarcerated.

The statistics suggest that it would be a truly rare situation if the officer who shot and killed Olango was convicted of a crime. But in this case, Olango’s family has the potential benefit of a video — which convinced prosecutors to press charges over the police shootings of Samuel DuBose in Cincinnati, Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina, and Laquan McDonald in Chicago.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays.